Friday, April 28, 2006

How about a book review?

I love books, and read more than is probably healthy for a man who still has a fully functioning sex drive...

Occasionally I review a book for the paper. Usually I review books that are of local interest (by a local author, or set in St. Augustine, etc.), but occasionally I review other books. I reviewed John Irving's Until I Find You because I disagreed with the reviews it got in the national press. I reviewed Khaled Hosseini's The Kite Runner as part of the St. Johns Reads program (our library sponsored reading group), and now I've reviewed Ray Wong's The Pacific Between because I'd followed the book from completion to publication and wanted to see what Ray's pen had wrought. Those of you who have asked me for critiques know I'm a straight shooter, and this review is no exception. Without further ado...

The Pacific Between - a promising debut novel from writer Ray Wong

Greg Lockland has problems. He never developed an adult relationship with his father, and now his father and mother are dead. If that isn't enough to lock Greg into some serious generation X angst, now he's found a stack of letters from a girl he left behind years ago - love letters - addressed to his father. Greg's subsequent journey to adulthood and self-discovery begins with a trip across the Pacific Ocean to his native Hong Kong in search of his childhood sweetheart and answers about her relationship, and his own, with his father.

Ray Wong is a talented writer, and the first few chapters of The Pacific Between is so deeply emotional and personal that it is almost embarrassing to read. You get the sense that Greg Lockland carries a lot of his author's emotional baggage onto the page, and if not, kudos to Ray for creating such an emotionally raw character. I certainly hope Greg is more creation than autobiography, because while Greg Lockland is an engaging character, he's not very likeable. He's a thirty-year-old man who thinks and behaves like a fourteen-year-old spoiled brat. He's selfish, and self-absorbed, and watching him stumble through his life, trampling mindlessly on the feelings of the people he is supposed to care about, is fascinating, but only in the same way watching a train wreck would be.

Wong creates ample tension in the opening chapters of his book, leading us to believe that Greg's quest to find his childhood sweetheart, Lian, will coincide with his quest to find in himself the man he never grew up to be. Unfortunately, at mid-book all the tension disappears, and for several chapters you are left wondering just where the story is going. To be honest, Wong almost lost me. If it weren't for all the promise I thought he showed in the early chapters, I probably would have put this book down and walked away, but I stayed with it, and I recommend you do the same.

I believe the real test of a first author's ability can be judged at the end of his debut novel. By then, the writer has found the confidence to tell his readers what he really wants to say, and, if he has any talent, he has found the voice he wants to say it with. The end of The Pacific Between is like the rising crescendo in Bolero - getting faster, louder, and bolder as it clips along. By the end, I understood the courage it took to create a character as flawed as Greg Lockland. A lesser writer would have made Greg more likeable, less petulant, and lost the inherent truth encapsulated in the character's flaws. I think Ray Wong has shown us that this is just the beginning of what will be a long literary career. The Pacific Between is available in trade paperback from Behler Publications,, and may be purchased at all major book retailers.

If you want me to review your book, you need to know three things:

1) I'm not an arts editor. Book reviews are behind the back burner, in the recipe box. Your book may be out of print before I get to it.

2) If your book stinks, I might not even finish it. It's hard to write a review on a book you didn't finish reading.

3) I'll call it the way I see it. It doesn't matter if I know you, like you, or am sleeping with you. I don't owe you a PR piece - I owe my readers an honest review.

If you still ain't skeert, brang it on.

Mark Pettus,
Friday, April 28, 2006

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Sunday, April 23, 2006

One, Two, Buckle my Bruno Magli Belted Slip-On Shoe

Stephen King's Cell is an interesting book - not because it's a good read (it is), but because King's books are guaranteed such a large audience that he can sell advertising space inside them. Product placement has made the leap to literature, and King, who once said there were people in the publishing industry who would steal pennies off their dead mothers' eyes, (and who is always willing and able to find new streams of income from his gift) is leading the way.

A boom box isn't a boom box, it's a Panasonic boom box. Cop killer ammo comes in a box labeled American Defender. Small Treasures, Swedish Steel, Nokia - all are set apart with bold lettering and different fonts. My first impression was that King was mocking the very idea of product placement in novels - similar to the way Mike Myers handled "little, yellow, different" Advil, Pepsi, and Pizza Hut in Wayne's World. If so, the joke is on the sponsors, because King is raking in the cash in return for the placement deals.

From the Cell website:

"...available on these US carriers only: Alltel, AT&T, Boost, Cellular One, Cingular, Dobson, Nextel, Sprint, T-Mobile and Verizon. Binary Content downloads are available on these carriers only AT&T, Cingular and Sprint. "

That's a lot of tie-ins for a book that makes the cell phone industry responsible for the destruction of modern civilization.

My concern is not that this is diluting the purity of literature (Big Box Booksellers, no mid-list publishers, and myriad other things have already done that), my concern is that references which once conveyed a specific time in American history - a Member's Only jacket - a Chevy Nova - a copy of the Saturday Evening Post - may no longer pass editorial muster, finding themselves replaced by brand names that are less evocative of the times, and more likely to draw advertising dollars.

A character in On the Bluff drives an old Charger - honestly, I didn't plan for it in advance, it just happened. But I'm glad Dodge brought back the Hemi. Now I'm going to be able to cash in on some of that advertising tie-in money. Man, that's Sweeeeet.

Mark Pettus,
Sunday, April 23, 2006

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Wednesday, April 05, 2006

Four? Fore! Who's still with me? (20 questions)

4) Can you write from the heart and still distance yourself from your writing enough to judge its quality?

Usually I can, but for a book length project I want other opinions. Some of you may know the story of my test audience for Transit Gloria. For those of you who don't, I promise to dedicate a post to it soon.

For the stories I write for the paper, I trust my own instincts most of the time, and very seldom do I hear from a reader or one of the other editors that I've missed my mark, but in most cases I force myself to be the dispassionate journalist - a skill I think most of us have (but not something a fiction writer should ever do, in my opinion). The one piece that sometimes worries me is my weekly OP-ED column. In it, I occasionally let down my hair and pour my emotions onto the page. The emotions cause me trouble. I don't have time to wait six weeks before I revisit and revise my column - I usually write it right before deadline, and that precludes having an "early reader" as well. AT deadline, no one has time to read my column.

This is a column I wrote last week. I know it isn't a great, I know it's not even close to being one of my best, but I like it. A lot. The problem is, I am very emotionally invested in the subject matter, and I'm not sure I can trust my own judgement on it. I cried when I wrote this, and I expected everyone else to cry with me. Now I know that some people did, and some people didn't, but I still can't approach this story without feeling the emotions I put into writing it.

I want you to meet a friend of mine.

By Mark Pettus

Bob Patterson is my friend. I first met him a few years ago when I moved in next door to him and his wife Judy. Bob is a big man, not quite big enough to be called a gentle giant, but gentle enough. Soft-spoken and well mannered, he is every inch a gentleman.

Two years ago Bob and I built a screen porch onto my house. Every day after work, we put on our bib overalls and went to work sawing wood, hammering nails, and painting boards. For weeks we shared each other's afternoons, and every afternoon I grew fonder of this old gentleman with the boundless energy of a man half my age, and a third of his. Bob is in his mid sixties, only a little younger than my dad, and he treated me the way I hope I treat my sons. Bob told me about his years working on the railroad, and about the time when he was pastor of his own church. He listened to my tales about army life and regaled me with his experiences working in a foundry as a young man. In his sixty-five years, Bob has done almost everything - which comes in very handy when you are building a screen porch.

Last year Bob laid the carpet in my dining room, and I helped him lay the carpet in his bedroom. Last spring I help Bob and Judy sell blueberries from a booth at the St. Augustine Farmers Market. Bob retired from the railroad a couple of years ago, and after Judy retired from teaching school, the two of them started a blueberry farm, and side by side they worked that farm - working harder after they retired than most people work before. Every morning they were up at the crack of dawn watering, planting, weeding, picking - blueberries are a very labor-intensive crop - so labor-intensive that most blueberry farmers turn their farms into pick-your-own operations. Not Bob and Judy. They were afraid their plants would suffer at the hands of customers who didn't understand how much work and love went into growing them. So, they worked all day at the farm, and then brought home buckets of blueberries to sort and package as they sat together at the kitchen table every night.

Bob and Judy love each other in a gentle, playful way that is delightful to see in an older couple. Both were widowed, Judy twice, before they found each other, and they obviously know how blessed they are to have found each other. While Bob and I were working, Judy always let him know dinner was ready by calling his cell phone. Bob always answered with, "I'm on my way," and when Judy told him to wash his hands first, he always replied, "Yes, Mother," and said it without any hint of sarcasm. When I rode with the them to the farmers market, seated behind Bob in the tiny jump seat of his truck, the two of them played "Punch buggy" while he drove and she read the newspaper aloud.

One of my kids found a baby squirrel and brought it home for us to nurse, and when he showed it first to "Mr. Bob," Bob said, "Oh, my goodness." That's Bob's signature phrase. I think you could tell him that the Martians had invaded Orlando, and Bob's response would be "Oh, my goodness." Bob has seen a lot in this life, but it hasn't jaded him. He's a good man with a good heart. I'll never forget attending a funeral for Bob's grandsons' dog, who had been run over by a delivery truck. Bob gave a eulogy that touched my soul, and made me believe that every pet I'd ever loved was waiting for me in heaven.

Last Thanksgiving, Bob knocked on my door. He wanted to tell me something - I don't remember what. He had the sniffles, and I asked him if it was a cold - or allergies - and he told me it was polyps in his nasal cavity, and that he was having them removed the following week. Two weeks later he came by again, and told me the biopsy on one of the polyps had come back positive for cancer, and that he was going in for more surgery after Christmas. He didn't seem terribly worried. He said the doctors' biggest concern was that his nose was just so close to his brain.

During surgery, the doctors found a small tumor on his brain, which they removed - Bob said they told him it just slipped off. He came home a couple of days later. That night, he became confused and angry, and frightened Judy so much that she took him back to the hospital, where he later underwent more surgery, and then over a month of therapy. Bob came home again a couple of weeks ago, but soon suffered another bout of confusion and anger. He is now in a long-term care facility. The doctors say his brain is damaged, and that Bob will never recover. Judy says he won't know me if I go visit, but I need to go see him.

Please join the American Cancer Society in their Relay for Life. It means a lot to me. You see, Bob Patterson is my friend, and I just don't have that many friends.

Can you write from the heart and still distance yourself from your writing enough to judge its quality?

How do you do it?

Mark Pettus,
Wednesday, April 05, 2006

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Monday, April 03, 2006

A funny thing happened on the way to the forum

This is just one of those bizarre things that can only happen on the Internet.

I created my forums a few weeks ago, but had no idea what to do with them at the time, so I just kept their existence under wraps. When I decided to use them to post the RSS how-to, I thought I would go check Google to see if the forums had been picked up by the search engines yet.

I scrolled through several pages of Mark Pettus this and Mark Pettus that before I found this really bizarre page - about me:


(staring after him)

What a creep.


Cowboy poet Mark Pettus agrees, but then proceeds to break his own rule, while treading on some other writing sacred cows.


Boy you said it, JOECLIFFORDFAUST.COM . (sighs) I certainly hope I never see him again.
Look, Meg Ryan is really cute, and if one of my books is made into a movie, I'm going to insist that Meg Ryan get a role, just so I can flirt with her at the cast party. Reading that she thinks I'm a creep, and that she hopes she never sees me again is not just confusing, it's damn near heartbreaking.

I didn't know how to get ahold of Meg, but I darned sure knew how to find this Joe Clifford Faust guy she was commiserating with, and I intended to get to the bottom of this one, PDQ.

Mr. Faust writes a blog titled:

A web-log of interest to those in the divers areas inspired by the muses; fiction and non-, song-writing, acting, music, films, and what-not.

On his blog, he wrote a brief review of my post Ask a Stupid Question... . I wouldn't say his review was a ringing endorsement, but then again... he didn't exactly accuse me of clubbing baby seals (see my post about the feature I wrote on the Safari family, and the letters to the editor I received). Here - you read it:

One thing I always try and do in these pages is to assure other writerfolk looking for inspiration that what I set down in these pages is what works for me, and that they need to work at writing in order to learn what works for them. Cowboy poet Mark Pettus agrees, but then proceeds to break his own rule, while treading on some other writing sacred cows. His blog looks like it was typewritten and then cut out with scissors and assembled by hand, just like the way I used to do newsletters when I worked at the County Extension Office in Gillette, Wyoming. (via Metaxucafe)

Then I did the only thing you should ever do when faced with a review - I thanked him for reading, and that even if he wasn't exactly a new fan, he was a new reader, and y'all know how I feel about readers.

Joe was gracious, and responded that he meant his cut and paste comment as a compliment - that he had hoped to achieve the same effect on his website. I'm a little embarrassed that I thought otherwise - this isn't as bad as the whole Agent Kristin/Kirsten/Bernita-thinks-I'm-mean-and-sarcastic episode, but only because Joe doesn't have breasts, and I haven't sent him a query letter. Check out Joe's site, you'll never guess what the address is...

By the way, the thing with Meg Ryan? It's part of a screenplay generating program on dan liebke's . It's pretty cool, and on top of that, the pages it generates are picked up by search engines. Site Promotion 501 - We're talking graduate level PR stuff here, kids.

Mark Pettus,
Monday, April 03, 2006

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Sunday, April 02, 2006

Subscribing with RSS: A Step-by-step, How-to guide.

If you already know why you want to subscribe to your favorite blogs, you and I have something in common. If you already know how, on the other hand, then until recently you were miles ahead of me.

If you don't know why you'd want to subscribe to your favorite blogs, let me tell you. If you are like me, the number of blogs you want to read has outgrown your ability to keep track of them. I've started using my link list as a way to save their addresses, but even that doesn't allow me to know when my favorite blogs have been updated, and it takes time to click through that many sites. Time is one thing I never seem to have enough of, and as much as I enjoy reading blogs, I've found that I just can't click through every one of my favorites every time I get a chance to read. An RSS reader will allow me to keep track of the links, and know when each blog was last updated.

I've had my blog set up to provide RSS feeds since I started blogging. RSS = Really Simple Syndication. I vaguely understood what RSS did - a visitor could subscribe to my site and be notified when it updated. What I didn't know, was how they did it. I decided to find out, and on the assumption that some of you don't know either, I'm sharing what I learned in a step by step "how-to" guide.

I've decided show you two different ways to subscribe - an online reader, and a feed aggregator that you can download to your desktop. The online reader is remarkably easy to use and can be accessed from any number of different computers, but limits you to fifty feeds (sites you can subscribe to). The aggregator is a little more complicated, but not much, and will let subscribe to a limitless number of feeds.

My forums will be home to a reading/discussion group, a place to share tips on writing and getting published, and an online critique group. I have no idea if there is enough interest among my visitors to justify my having a forum, but I can think of only one way to find out. I hope you'll add it to your list of favorite stops.

I'm using this little learning adventure as an opportunity to introduce my forums. I've posted the how-to guides there, and since there are dozens of different RSS (and XML) readers,I hope those of you who are familiar with other readers will tell us about them there, and share their relative advantages and disadvantages.

The How-To Guide to subscribing to your favorite blogs using RSS is here.

Just want to tour my forums? Click Here.

Mark Pettus,
Sunday, April 02, 2006

6 comments so far. Thank you, Blogger Mr. Faust, Blogger Adam Hurtubise, Blogger Shesawriter, Blogger S. R. Hatcher, Blogger Mark Pettus, Blogger anne frasier,

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